A Wife’s Protest

1Like a white snowdrop in the spring
2    From child to girl I grew,
3And thought no thought, and heard no word
4    That was not pure and true.
5And when I came to seventeen,
6    And life was fair and free,
7A suitor, by my father's leave,
8    Was brought one day to me.
9"Make me the happiest man on earth,"
10    He whispered soft and low.
11My mother told me it was right
12    I was too young to know.
13And then they twined my bridal wreath
14    And placed it on my brow.
15It seems like fifty years ago --
16    And I am twenty now.
17My star, that barely rose, is set;
18    My day of hope is done --
19My woman's life of love and joy --
20    Ere it has scarce begun.
21Hourly I die -- I do not live --
22    Though still so young and strong.
23No dumb brute from his brother brutes
24    Endures such wanton wrong.
25A smouldering shame consumes me now --
26    It poisons all my peace;
27An inward torment of reproach
28    That never more will cease.
29O how my spirit shrinks and sinks
30    Ere yet the light is gone!
31What creeping terrors chill my blood
32    As each black night draws on!
33I lay me down upon my bed,
34    A prisoner on the rack,
35And suffer dumbly, as I must,
36    Till the kind day comes back.
37Listening from heavy hour to hour
38    To hear the church-clock toll --
39A guiltless prostitute in flesh,
40    A murderess in soul.
41Those church-bells chimed the marriage chimes
42    When he was wed to me,
43And they must knell a funeral knell
44    Ere I again am free.
45I did not hate him then; in faith
46    I vowed the vow "I will;"
47Were I his mate, and not his slave,
48    I could perform it still.
49But, crushed in these relentless bonds
50    I blindly helped to tie,
51With one way only for escape,
52    I pray that he may die.
53O to possess myself once more,
54    Myself so stained and maimed!
55O to make pure these shuddering limbs
56    That loveless lust has shamed!
57But beauty cannot be restored
58    Where such a blight has been,
59And all the rivers in the world
60    Can never wash me clean.
61I go to church; I go to court;
62    No breath of scandal flaws
63The lustre of my fair repute;
64    For I obey the laws.
65My ragged sister of the street,
66    Marked for the world's disgrace,
67Scarce dares to lift her sinful eyes
68    To the great lady's face.
69She hides in shadows as I pass --
70    On me the sunbeams shine;
71Yet, in the sight of God, her stain
72    May be less black than mine.
73Maybe she gave her all for love,
74    And did not count the cost;
75If so, her crown of womanhood
76    Was not ignobly lost.
77Maybe she wears those wretched rags,
78    And starves from door to door,
79To keep her body for her own
80    Since it may love no more.
81If so, in spite of church and law,
82    She is more pure than I;
83The latchet of those broken shoes
84    I am not fit to tie:
85That hungry baby at her breast --
86    Sign of her fallen state --
87Nature, who would but mock at mine,
88    Has made legitimate.
89Poor little "love-child" -- spurned and scorned,
90    Whom church and law disown,
91Thou hadst thy birthright when the seed
92    Of thy small life was sown.
93O Nature, give no child to me,
94    Whom Love must ne'er embrace!
95Thou knowest I could not bear to look
96    On its reproachful face.
Publication Notes: 
Unspoken Thoughts (New South Wales: English Department, University College, 1988): 65.
RPO poem Editors: 
Ian Lancashire